“I apologize before my readers for a short break in my writing and promise to catch up in the following weeks. This time my residency will slightly break off from places in St Petersburg associated with my life and memory and will present a new exhibition that has just started a new season in the city that gradually and slowly wakes from quarantine sleep and re-opens doors of its museums and exhibition halls.
The exhibition that is taking place at Manege Exhibition Hall opened on 8th August 2020 and will run till 15th October 2020, with small individual tours and free downloadable audioguides available to enhance the experience. The project NEMOSKVA is the third stage of art curators’ program that aimed at researching the state of art (forgive me the word pun) in 33 Russian regions, with curators moving along Transsiberian railway path to meet groups and artists on their way. Now the findings are presented at exhibition in St Petersburg, with seven art curators (Antonio Geusa, Svetlana Ussoltseva, Vladimir Seleznev, Artyom Filatov, German Preobrazhensky, Evgeny Kutergin and Oksana Budulak) responsible for respective thematic clusters of art. The exhibition can be explored in any direction, but it is preferrable to explore each cluster in its totality, as it will help to get under the skin of each topic (Lethargy, Mimicry, Material Resource, Between the Word and the White Cube, Wormhole Theory etc.), with the unique and quite eery Park of Culture and Entertainment taking up almost the entire upper floor.
The exhibition is very eclectic and feels almost like a grass-roots mozaic, a chaotic, multi-textured puzzle that probably will never grow into a picture by itself but needs an eye of an observer to do so. Everytime you walk along this exhibition (with curators, with a group, with an audioguide – as in your first steps you struggle to make sense of what you see) or by yourself, you create you own synthesis of objects on offer, overlooking some of them, stopping to linger and think in front of others, feeling your own traumas emerge with the third, enjoying the sense of recogniton with the fourth ones. Every visitor makes his or her own sense of it and participates in creating or rather excavating his own memories or sensations of post-Soviet Russia that has spread itself over thousands of kilometres and waits to be discovered, understood, made sense of: the eye of the observer as represented in Alexander Nikolsky’s Optics of the Material World (2020) with its mirrors and delayed recording of ourselves watching the installation becomes the symbol of the exhibition.
The Non-Moscow and people living in it is in search of a unifying ideology or a mindframe, while sharing common pains, complexes, neuroses coming from its past. Its goal is in locating oneself, one’s identity among the shreds of memories that become invalid or irrelevant, making oneself heard by the center (Moscow), by authorities (many projects are almost informal in their status) or by international organizations (this link is almost missing, with none or almost no dialogue formed with international art community yet). The artists that make part of the exhibition are in some kind of post-lethargic state resonant with our current post-quarantine state of mind: still slow, still full of fears but preparing itself for actions. Exhibition leaves an impression that modernity has not touched Russian provinces: many artists try to use the remnants of the Soviet or early post-Soviet past, playing with it and sometimes, like in the case with Alexandra Melnikova’s Rewriting (2020), using new recordings to create a layer with the videos made 20 years ago to see what kind of mixed reality will come out of it. The most striking example of not being able to disentagle oneself from the past if a huge installation Park of Culture and Entertainment made by an art group North-7 where strange and colourful objects and sculptures look like they have been excavated from the Soviet park after its explosion or have been maimed and transformed through an act of playful vandalism. One connects with the names of these sculptures (Children’s corner, Big Fountain, Shooting Range) but one feels at a distance with what one actually sees, as this is the distorted, horrorful presentation of the Soviet rather than its glorification or nostalgic positioning.
It also seems that artists were at a loss of what materials to use – they seem to be wandering like nomads through a huge, vast, unordered space that has still been unclaimed, unappropriated and feels lost. Actually, it is another huge thematic thread of this exhibition – making sense of the space that has been inherited from the past and trying to use it in the present. Thus, in Anastasia Tsaider’s Arcadia (2020) the artist searches for the sense of idyllic in the architecture of modern micro-districts (legacies of the USSR), while in another art object several pictures of deserted parks are presented as a place for meditation and self-discovery. Alyona Tereshko in A Walk (2020) and Asya Marakullina in The Seam Rule (2014-2015) present their patterns of walking the cities (St Petersburg and Helsinki) and dealing with their loneliness.
Mitya Glavankov in The Swamp (2020), Anatoly Dolzhenko in Elements, Art Group Cosmic Cow in The Doorway (2020) and Art Group 18:22 in Barbie Beach show the use of different surfaces and objects transformed through art: Dolzhenko excavates either burnt or sunk objects, Art Group 18:22 creates a futuristic landscape with pink parts of Barbie, while The Doorway becomes a space for graffities, posts, adverts and scratchings of its residents.
One feels a subconscious fear of the artists that if attention is not drawn to these objects, if something is not made out of them, it will all fall into nothingness, disappear in the swamp of forgiveness, as has already happened in striking Ionization by Art Group Gui where a huge whale carries an ionized dead worker’s city on its back. Iona seems not have survived the journey inside the whale: it has been left intact, but came out frozen, dead, not ready for action.
In more optimistic attempts to use one’s locality ethnography of different Russian regions is highlighted. Thus, in Anton Klimov’s Deep Water (2015) pictures of people living near Lake Baikal are hung all over the room, while in the installation Sleep Arteries by art group Tender Women videos of women wearing amber necklaces inherited from their grandmothers seek to show the connection with local traditions and memories. Exploration of real human experiences goes into more traumatic territories with elements of anthropological research and relation of individual experience tinged with political message in such installations as Prison Deparment (2014) by Elena Anosova who presents a series of large-scale portraits of detainees of a female colony, The School of Humility (2019-2020) by Syomych where the author makes little videos of written observations of his army experience projected on four narrow soldier’s beds and Factory Notebook (2013-2020) by Dmitry Korotaev where the artist (also a factory worker) intersperses his daily notes with association-loaded drawings.
And one final encompassing neurosis expressed at the exhibition is the fear that nothing will happen and every movement will result in lethargy or death: it is very openly exressed in the installation Nothing is Happening Again (2020) by Mayana Nasybullova hovering in ‘clouds’ over the entrance. There is a whole section full of still life collages and ready-mades dedicated to lethargy, with an installation Imaginary Lift Won’t Arrive Anywhere (2020) by Dmitry Zherabov clearly expressing the artist’s pessimistic vision of possible social and physical mobility in modern Russia.
Horizon of Events (2020) by Varvara Kuzmina is similarly striking in the the static character of an artist’s point of view: we see a winter landscape of factory roofs and smoke seen from a certain window and are invited to watch it for many minutes and thus eternally. There is also a very striking installation that is the culmination of the whole experience (pessimistic, isn’t it) You’re Going to Die Anyway (2020) by Alexey Ilkaev where each visitor is invited to try exercising on a stationary bike with a line ‘you’re going to die anyway’ highlighted in neon in front of him or her. Artists are striving to get out of this nothingness: usually in invididual efforts unsupported by state or any other organization. Thus, Anastasia Vepreva’s History of Failures (2020) documents her failed applications for art grants and funding, while Maks Alyokhin and his art group from Krasnodar in their art interventions called X Cultures try to find locations in their city that could become spaces for potential art events. There is also a joyful Art-Virus (2020) by Anton Mukhametchin where the artist vitrually ‘invades’ famous paintings, becoming a part of them.
Generally it seems that the exhibition could have profited from some more optimistic art installations reflecting positive movements or visions and reflecting more of Russian modernity that is in no way as fully disconnected as the exhibition shows. Russian towns and cities are hopefully much more connected with Europe and the world than just having the same names with some of them, as in Anastasia Bogomolova’s documenta (2020) where the artist finds her own Berlin, Paris, Varna and Kassel in Chelyabinsk district. And hopefully, Soviet past and post-Soviet present can interact in many other meaningful ways than just the realm of nostalgia, memory and nothingness. One can’t help having an impression that the exhibition is politically taylor-made to represent Russia as an entity unknown to the West, undiscovered and hovering in chaos, while it is certainly not the full picture one can make of modern Russia. One wonders where all the literary and historic traditions have gone and where all those modern global young Russians are who read, see and travel and whose life spaces are not limited to swamps and doorways, and who evidently have developed much more enjoyable life styles than those depicted in ironic pessimistic LUXURIYAT (2020) by Anna Potayenko. So while the exhibition is evidently worth immersing in, my opinion is that its message of the state of Russian art seems not to be fully objective, and represents a certain curatorial vision. However, it is strikingly in tune with the visitors’ possible state of mind in current times and hopefully by this process of dealing with our negative emotions, fears and sense of loss will help us to overcome them not only in historic perspective, but also in our daily sensation of connection with past and future. And then hopefully something will happen and we won’t die – yet.